As an intricate and complex institution within our society, America’s system of government has been a source of both upset and major progression in the history of America. As with most major institutions in our society that involve any consequences directly affecting individuals’ lives and rights, the political system ebbs and flows in both beneficial and detrimental ways. When it comes to the process and outcomes of policies, decision-making, and leadership within the government, however, the American electoral system proves to be among the most scrutinized and criticized aspects of government today.
The process of voting within the United States has, like many other aspects of government, has evolved vastly since the delegation of power first began with English settlers. The changes that have occurred over time have been immense despite major adversity, disagreement, and the ongoing complexity of political systems, parties, campaigns, and citizen involvement. With consideration of the American political electoral system as a whole and the overall progress government has made in attempt to be fair, just, and in the best interest of “the people,” I agree that the history and evolution of government is commendable and worthy of recognition.
In regards to the current function and execution of the electoral process, however, I find some systematic components to be flawed due to a combination of factors including candidate partisanship and the strict ideological division of political parties; irregularity of voter representation and populations; biased sources of campaign finance; the heavy involvement of interest groups and PACs; and the influence of mainstream media.
Many political theorists and even citizens themselves have argued that one of the most obvious and reoccurring aspects of our election process that is flawed is the limited knowledge and engagement that exists within American electoral process and political culture. There are many reasons as to why limited knowledge of and lack of participation in politics may occur within the American population, including disinterest in or perhaps even lack of education about elections, candidates, campaigning, and voting.
Though this lack of engagement presents a problem for any democratic system, what may be more important is who chooses to engage in the political sphere, and what implications this has for our democratic process. Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser argue that there exist many factors that contribute to changes in voting behaviors including but not limited to age of voter registration, political partisanship, financial status, social class, and educational awareness about politics. As Kernell, Jacobson, and Kousser maintain, Age and education have the strongest influence on voting…. but also] the assorted demographic and institutional influences on voting produce an electorate in which wealthy, well-educated, older white people are overrepresented and the poor, undereducated, young, and nonwhite are underrepresented…. People with social advantages are more likely to be mobilized by parties, interest groups, and campaign organizations. Political leaders deploy their scarce resources efficiently, targeting the people who are cheapest to reach and likeliest to respond (521)
The authors also state that those below the age of 25 tend to be less engaged in political campaigns, and with this, race, class, religion, and self-benefit play an important role in determining whether Americans will vote. For example, Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser discuss how African Americans, Hispanics, low-income civilians, and women have historically been left on the outskirts of political elections, and are therefore less likely to vote or identify with a specific party (518).
They also bring up role of benefits in terms of voter turnout, pointing out, “the benefits of elections- in both the broad sense of maintaining democratic accountability and in the narrower sense of electing a preferred candidate- are collective benefits…the challenge for voters is to figure out which candidates will best serve their interests and represent their values” (Kernell, 517, 512). On a similar note, another factor that Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser address is that of mobilization.
Due to the decline in mobilization by parties, candidates, and other groups such as labor unions, fewer people are being mobilized and therefore perhaps are not as informed about voting. “Most candidates and parties have replaced labor-intensive door-to-door campaigns with money-intensive television and direct-mailing campaigns. Moreover, because media campaigns are so expensive, parties and others concentrate scarce resources on the tightest races, thereby reducing attempts to mobilize voters in less-competitive races” (Kernell, 521).
This, according to authors, is an institutional fault that is affecting voter engagement and turnout rates due to a misrepresentation of people who may not have access to Internet or TV or need personal contact to feel engaged in the political process, and are therefore left out of the electoral arena. The involvement and impact of media on the electoral process as a relatively new, extensive, and specialized source of communication and advertisement will be discussed later in the paper.
Another factor that has a significant impact on voter turnout and political involvement is the level of appeal and/or connection between a candidate and the American electorate. This raises the question of what components (or lack) of representation does this tell us about our electoral system as well as the partisanship of political parties? Why do people feel so disengaged in the political process? Is it connected to an increasing disenchantment with the strict ideological confines of the two major political parties?
These series of questions are indicative of one of the flaws that currently exist in this democratic system, that is, the lack of thorough representation of the American people to such an extent that they deem voting as a futile attempt at change or difference occurring within their society and world. How does one change this? How does one involve or encourage discouraged voters? If targeted in the correct manner, discouraged voters could have a large impact on the outcome of elections. “In most American states, when voters register to vote, they must indicate a party affiliation or declare themselves to be independent or nonpartisan.
These declarations can affect their access to party primary elections, as well as their overall opinion and views of the issues being represented by each candidate running for office (Baumer, 157). If voters were allowed to vote according to their views on particular items and issues regardless of actual party affiliation, as opposed to “assigning” or taking on a political stance (‘I’m a Democrat/I’m a Republican) prior to even casting a vote, politicians may see a drastic change in voter turnout and overall political involvement.
This change in “forced” political affiliation could also be demonstrated through campaigning, in which the nonvoting population is approached and encouraged to become more engaged in the process without having to label their beliefs and views on election-related issues. In recognition of the 2008 electoral campaigns, however, it is important to note that the presidential candidates made more of an effort and spent more money than ever before to reach out to underrepresented citizens and win their votes, which in Obama’s case, proved to be highly successful.
Individuals who felt they could connect, to some degree, to Obama himself or the views he stood to represent, were more likely to vote even if they didn’t consider themselves strict Democrats and had never before voted in a Presidential election. If more candidates made a concerted effort to appeal to voters disengaged from the political process, our electoral system would be more representative and therefore more effective. Any politician, corporation, or citizen would agree that money has power.
Money buys you power, influence and in American politics, (to a certain extent) a rather important voice. Money not only plays a defining factor in that it grants one access to power and gives one rather influential voice, but it also acts as a source of campaigning in and of itself. In regards to running for a high profile position, such as candidates do through the use of campaigning, authors Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser state that “no matter how qualified the candidate is or how powerful the message, neither will count for much if voters never hear about them” (536).
In other words, in order to establish effective means of communication between the candidates and the people voting for them, money is necessary. There are a number of ways in which candidates and political parties raise money for campaigns, ranging from fundraising to contributions from individuals to donations from political action committees (PAC’s). The most straightforward way is for groups to establish affiliated political action committees (PACs).
These groups are then registered with the FEC, collect donations in limited amounts (no more than $5,000 from individuals) and can both contribute funds to candidates ($5,000 limit per election) and parties (limit of $15,000) and act (spend) independently, including making statements of express advocacy (to vote for) a candidate or candidates(Baumer 187). Parties nowadays not only invest most of their unding into campaigning, but have also “regained an important role in political communication through independent (of candidates) spending to promote party principles and policy positions, and to attack candidates of the other party. In 2006, both parties spent over $100 million in this way” (Baumer, 2/28/11 lecture). This leads to the point that Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser made in their book about how ““candidates’ appetites for campaign funds continue to grow because the cost of developing an effective message and getting it out to voters continues to climb” (Kernell, 541).
As Baumer noted, more than 80% of the money raised during campaigns in 2006 went straight to the production and presentation of negative ads in effort to deter voters from political opponents (103). Due to the BCRA’s elimination of laws placing limits on hard and soft money being donated to candidates, parties can now spend as much money as they want for ad production and distribution, traveling, demonstrations, etc.
On the subject of creating a reform that would address the flaws behind campaign finance, Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser state, “another reform suggested would democratize congressional campaign finance by forbidding large donations and banning PACs, forcing candidates to finance their campaigns with small contributions from private individuals” (Kernell 549). When it comes to elections (as with many other aspects of politics, too), serious competition is required if a candidate is determined to win.
The finances that are needed in order to do so requires candidates gathering large amounts of money from supporters, whether it be individuals, fellow politicians, PACS, 501c groups, or wealthy businesses and corporations. These forms of financial contributions, however, pose as a problem in terms of upholding democratic ideals of equality, which is the foundation of democracy in America. As Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser discuss, the practice of gathering money from individuals and groups raises the suspicion that, lected officials will be more responsive to contributors than to voters, undermining the purpose of elections and, eventually, democracy. The evidence for the claim that campaign money buys influence and that elected officials ignore voters to please donors is actually quite tenuous. But no one denies that money buys access, or a politician’s ear. ” (548) To a certain extent this is unfair to all candidates running due to the fact that each one is failing to be represented and exposed to the American public equally, thus allowing for an unequal distribution of information.
Money determines how much of a voice you are allowed to have, as well as increasing the overall chance of winning. More money means more effective campaigning, which in turn gets more citizen attention and support, and ultimately wins more votes. This is, of course, taking into consideration all forms of money (specifically, money that isn’t given to candidates by the federal government or regulated by FECA) but instead money that is only donated and/or fundraised by individuals, PACs, or special interest groups and 527/502c’s.
The overall role that funding for campaigns plays in American politics is obviously a very important but easily harmful one. It ultimately determines, to a certain extent, whether a candidate will win or lose an election (this also takes into account whether new candidates are running against incumbents, which is a whole separate issue in itself), and how much exposure the candidates will have in conveying their message and political image. In order to convey these messages, candidates have become more and more dependent on sources of distribution that reach the most people as possible.
As technology advances, making communication and political visibility more pervasive, politicians turn to the media to do their dirty work. The media, in all its various forms, plays a huge role in politics by acting as the “agenda-setter” for what issues and topics are being presented to voters. Although a useful source for exposure of candidates, campaign advertising and news, media has a negative way of executing the delivery and salience of information.
As Cigler and Loomis maintain, “the mass media’s potential to propagandize and to manipulate the public could undermine the democratic profess… Few of us acquire political information from other people; instead, strangers decide what information most of us receive [causing] audiences [to] learn not only what the campaign issues are but how much importance to attach to them” (Cigler, 242). Most major news organizations have selected topics and point of candidate’s campaigns for discussion and thus control what issues are being discussed not only within the political sphere but also the cultural and social phere. Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser state, “voters cannot take the information [offered by the media] at face value, for candidates have an incentive to misrepresent themselves to win votes” (525). Although there exists definite truth in the media serves its purpose in informing the population with information that is meaningful, it influences our perception of what is important in ways of which many people are unaware. The use of technology also plays a role in the biases presented on political issues, especially information that is intended to inform a mass of people.
As Kernell, Jacobson and Kousser point out, “presidential candidates invest heavily in television advertising, the most efficient way to reach an electorate of more than one hundred million people” (Kernell, 546). Before the use of Internet, texting, and TV ads, politicians relied heavily on the use of mobilization to gain voter support, both vote-wise and financially. With the decline in mobilization in areas with less-represented populations of people and the increase in media-driven campaigns, the populations of lower-class people were left out of major political campaigns.
As mentioned above on the topic of voter turnout, the media has replaced door-to-door mobilization, which not only leaves people out and uninformed, but is less personal and relatable. Receiving an email or text that has been sent out to millions of people isn’t a warm, friendly way of being encouraged to vote for a candidate, but instead gives you the feel that you are just one of a million people being targeted for political support.
In Obama’s case during the 2008 elections, the use of media actually played out in his favor. “The Obama team was adept at using new technologies to reach voters, especially young voters. They sent out a constant stream of email messages to their large and growing network of supporters, put up YouTube videos, and did lots of cell phone texting” (Baumer 180). Due to the era of technology that so many younger voters are emerged in, the use of mass media targeted and won the attention of numerous voters.
Yet for those who don’t text, watch TV, have Internet, or immerse themselves in the mainstream use of media, the important (although probably biased) political information regarding campaigns and elections aren’t distributed evenly across the populations. In Thomas E. Patterson’s words, “what is needed is a more balanced portrayal of the workings of the political system… political leaders must be given more opportunities to make their claims without media interpretation” (Cigler, 252).
As one can see there is an evident umbrella of events and factors that contribute to the overall limitations and discrepancies in the electoral process and political system as a whole. Many citizens and scholars argue that there exist large flaws in the way American elections take place. They believe that these flaws are reflective of an institutional and systemic problem and thus the system can be easily viewed as illegitimate. As is applicable to almost all things, the election process has room for improvement and development.
Suggesting recommendations for improving American elections is a difficult thing to do as the subject overall is very complex. However, one thing that I think would be beneficial is finding alternatives to relying just on mass media and instead, increase mobilization that targets underrepresented populations who might be left out of the political sphere of voting. By improving voter turnout numbers as well as public engagement with elections, the development of a new type of political culture could begin to emerge in which taking part in elections is much more prominent in all types of populations.
With an increase in programs and workshops accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds (such as schools), we would improve the general understanding of the importance to exercising the right to vote and become engaged in political activities. This type of political education could possibly change the culture of indifference or lack of knowledge that exists among so many people and help provide a structure of electorates in which more citizens support (financially as well as politically) candidates in balanced and reasonable ways.
Consequently, this could lead to a decrease in biased and flawed campaign financing and an increase in the population of American citizens that care about and want to participate in the electoral process. Through this we might be able to hope that the political culture has the capability and means to change, bringing about further evolution and progress in a just manner.